By Lynn West
Leaving Tugboat Annie’s one recent Sunday after brunch, my husband wondered about its history. “Maybe it was a boarding house or a factory,” he mused. I must say I didn’t think the West Bay Marina and the restaurant that sits proudly in its midst on the banks of Budd Inlet would have such a colorful past.
According to Blair Nixon, owner and sole proprietor of Tugboat Annie’s and Neil Falkenburg, manager of the West Bay Marina, the site has survived fires, squalls, and many reinventions over the past 54 years, but has no factories or boarding houses in its past.
Though the West Bay Marina was built in 1961, it wasn’t in its current configuration until 1981. Falkenburg, who has been the Marina manager since 1991, gave me some historical perspective. “The 1981 Columbus Day storm brought strong southerly winds that demolished the boat houses on the south end of the Marina, and the high tides blew the marina itself off the pilings. However, that wouldn’t be our last disaster,” he cautioned.
After the reconstruction, the building housed offices and bathrooms and eventually a marine store to support the boat launch, lumberyard, logging fields and the marina itself. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that a restaurant opened upstairs.
Actually, three restaurants preceded Tugboat Annie’s, but none of them succeeded for long. According to Falkenburg, “Tugs was a full service, white table cloth, fine dining establishment; however it ended badly.” On the day after Christmas 1993, a suspicious fire destroyed the building, and it took two years to rebuild in the same footprint.
Next, Captain Ron’s opened, a bit more upscale than Tug’s, but after management problems, it closed in eighteen months. Finally in 1997, Cactus on the Bay, a tapas-style Spanish restaurant, initially had quite a following, but closed after one year. The site remained empty for a year and a half until after some arm-twisting, John Stedham, the owner of Steamboat Annie’s at the time, with Blair Nixon and another partner opened Tugboat Annie’s on June 2, 1999, and “the rest is history,” as they say.
“Blair has done a great job finding the right formula for the right restaurant in the right spot,” according to Falkenburg. “It fits the Olympia lifestyle while previous establishments couldn’t quite get it right.”
However, according to Blair, “It took awhile to move from more of a pub atmosphere to a mainstream restaurant.” Gradually the pool table was moved out to make room for more tables and booths and a breakfast menu was added. The popular, Kayak and Breakfast (two kayaks, two breakfasts and two coffees for $50), has been offered on weekends for the last 8 years.
We first met Blair in 2003. Our daughter was hunting for a reception venue for a wedding that had occurred earlier in the year in England. Blair had just closed the marine store and was opening Viewpoint, an event space, downstairs in its place.
Surrounded by windows like the restaurant upstairs, the Olympics, Mount Rainer, Dofflemyer Point, downtown Olympia and Priest Point Park are all visible from various Viewpoint vantage points. The members of the West Olympia and South Puget Sound Rotary clubs and the Olympia Kiwanis club that meet there regularly must have a few distractions.
Even in the evening, when our daughter’s event took place, with white lights strung across the ceiling and balloons and flowers, it was a delightful setting. Blair told me, “As you know, it doesn’t have eight foot ceilings and a country club atmosphere, but it works for many parties and events.”
Stanton Zabel, banquet manager, who has worked at Tugboats for eight years, commented, “Working at Tugboat Annie’s and for a manager like Blair has been so different than corporate establishments where I worked previously. I really enjoy coming to work.” Blair’s relaxed management style mirrors the restaurant’s atmosphere on even the busiest days, like Mother’s Day, graduations or prom nights according to Stanton.
Over the past 15 years, the major changes Blair has made are to ensure more diners have a comfortable place to relax and eat. “Consistent, low-key, casual atmosphere and good food are all hallmarks of the establishment,” according to manager Zabel.
Just like the many Olympia residents who are regulars at the restaurant or the bar after a hard day’s work, so too, are those who look forward to participating in the special Event Nights, like Tuesday Open Mic Night, Wednesday Irish Session Celtic Music and Magic on Thursday nights.
During the winter months, if the fog is clouding the beautiful views, diners can instead wander about the myriad of donated photographs, license plates, beer tins, weird signs, kites, airplanes, and boats that hang from walls and ceilings.
Now that summer is on its way, take visitors (even by boat if you wish) to Tugboat Annie’s, enjoy outdoor dining, and send them home with a mug, hat or shirt as a memento of an enjoyable meal in a beautiful setting.
2100 West Bay Drive NW in Olympia